In the summer of 1970, student demonstrators camped outside the White House night after night, demanding an end to the Vietnam War and hurling insults at President Nixon. This had not happened before. Prior wars had enjoyed popular support, or at least acquiescence, and the young had always fallen into line. Not this generation. Why weren’t they in class?
Richard Nixon, inside, was deeply conscious of it all. Moreover, it seemed like miscommunication. After all, Vietnam was not his war. He had inherited in from the previous President and the one before him. Nixon was trying hard to end it, though doing so in the manner of all politicians before or since: peace with honor, no appeasement for aggressors, these colors don’t run, etc, etc, and so forth. Perhaps more than most politicians, Nixon wanted to be loved, yet here he was hated, and hated unjustly, he felt. So late one night, he strolled out and spoke to the demonstrators, to the dismay of security and staff.
He rambled, vacillating between explaining his policy, his ideals, and how the world worked, reminiscing, and dispensing fatherly advise. Those students should widen out, he suggested, travel some, even outside the country. For his administration, he hoped “that the great mainland of China be opened up so that we could know the seven hundred million people who live in China and who are one of the most remarkable people on earth.” But if Nixon had hoped for understanding, he got none. From my admittedly sketchy recollection of news accounts back then, students were steamed that they had come with serious adult concerns, and he had engaged them with memories of college football! They didn’t want to hear about football, and they certainly didn’t want any fatherly councel. They wanted what they wanted, and they wanted it now.
Later Nixon expanded his China theme. Weeks later he said to Time magazine “if there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China. If I don’t, I want my children to.”
That might seem strange coming from Richard Nixon. He’d built his political career on anti-communist rhetoric. But by the late 1960’s he was reassessing. “Red” China had no diplomatic relations with any non-communist country, yet it was the largest nation on earth. Did it not make sense to try to assist them into the community of nations? Wasn’t China suffering from it’s isolation? At odds with its two huge neighbors, the Soviet Union and India, and reeling from its latest Great Leap Forward, a venture which starved millions, might it not respond to a helping hand? Nixon, from the beginning of his Presidency, purposed to visit China, meet with Mao Tse-tung, and end decades of Chinese isolation.
Diplomats laid the groundwork, doing so with utmost secrecy. For example, Henry Kissinger flew to Pakistan on some backslapping mission, but feigned illness so he could retire and escape media limelight, Then, unobserved, he flew to China to meet with Mao’s number two, Chou En-lai. Of course, the secrecy was decreed so that Nixon’s political enemies wouldn’t prematurely discover his “heresy,” chumming with communists, and pound him into the ground with it. Not to mention the American allies that would surely be unsettled. The Chinese played along, but never quite understood American secrecy. “If they want to come,” said Mao, “they should come in the open light. Why should they hide their head and pull in their tail?”
But it was young people, acting in innocence and sheer good will, who also moved plans ahead. Conscious of American attitudes thawing and looking for an appropriate response, neither too cool nor too cloying, in April 1971 China invited over the American table tennis team. They were right next door in Japan at the time. Mao made the decision himself. As he termed it, the small ping pong ball could be used to move the ball of the earth. Chou ordered the Chinese team to let the Americans win some games, which were televised live.
One of the American youngsters, Glenn Cowan, was thought of as a hippy. Toward the end of the tournament one the Chinese players unexpectedly presented him a silk brocade scarf. The Chinese team leader panicked at this unauthorized contact, but the player brushed him aside. “Take it easy. As head of delegation you have many concerns, but I am just a player.” Mao heard of the incident and said with approval: “Zhuang Zedong not only plays good Ping-Pong but knows how to conduct diplomacyas well.
During a reception at tournament’s end, Chou En-lai entertained questions from the foreigners. “What do you think about the hippy movement?” the unselfconscious Cowan asked. Chou didn’t know much about it, but suggested it was restless youth looking for change and not sure how to bring it about, much as things had been in his day. The hippy movement runs very deep, the American youngster countered. “It’s a whole new way of thinking.” But Chou suggested that “spirit must be transformed into material force before the world can move ahead.” The boy’s mother apparently sent Chou flowers for educating her son.
One year later, following the groundwork of the diplomats and the kids, Richard Nixon set foot in China, the first American President ever to do so. Days of talks and banquets ensued. Thorny issues were hashed out: Taiwan and Vietnam, for example, and each country tried to get a feel for the others' relations with the bellicose Soviet Union. Everybody toasted everybody. Mao approved of Nixon: “He speaks forthrightly….no beating around the bush, not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.“ At the Great Wall of China, the President declared: “A people who could build a wall like this certainly have a great past to be proud of and a people who have this kind of a past must also have a great future.” To this day, the Chinese value those words.
Late evening, the final night of his visit, Nixon reviewed goings-on with aides Kissinger and Haldeman. He had seriously stirred up the pot of international relations. He had taken great personal risk to his legacy and reputation. Would it all turn out well in the end? Kissinger felt Nixon was asking for reassurance and he gave it, moved by “an odd tenderness for this lonely, tortured, and insecure man.”
Hard to believe that all this happened not yet forty years ago. China was then a populous, but backward country. Today it is the world’s rising power. Scores of gleaming skyscraper-packed cities stand where, just a few years ago, there were only barren field. Business Week recently opined that the remaining good jobs in America are to be found in health care and education….can you really base an economy on that? Manufacturing and technology jobs are moving abroad, much of it to China. Now that China’s star is so dramatically rising, will they get cocky? one commentator wondered. No, for China has always thought of itself as a great power, and only now is it finally reemerging after shaking off a century of Western exploitation.
Richard Nixon revisited China in 1993, as a private citizen. “The growth of this place is really unbelievable,” he told chums. “And you know, I like to think that I had something to do with it.” Nixon died in 1994.
All specifics taken from the excellent new book Nixon and Mao, by Margaret MacMillan, c 2007. The book includes a 16 page photo section chronicling the Nixon visit.